The What Will Save You Factor
May 6, 2014 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
At our Spring Revel last month, John Jeremiah Sullivan presented the Hadada Award to Frederick Seidel. Sullivan’s remarks follow, along with three of Seidel’s poems, which were read aloud that night: “Downtown,” read by Zadie Smith; “Frederick Seidel,” read by Martin Amis; and “The Night Sky,” read by Uma Thurman.
As a kind of offsite, ersatz staff member at The Paris Review, I claim the pleasure both of thanking you all for your presence here, and of thanking everyone at the Review—Lorin, and the board, and my colleagues there—for giving me the honor of announcing this award. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word honor in a less glib manner.
When you are in your twenties and living in the city, or any city, or anywhere, and trying to write, there are poets whose work will come to mean something to you beyond pleasure, beyond even whatever we have in mind when we use the word inspiration, and into the arena of survival, into what the poet whose work we are celebrating tonight describes as the “what will save you factor.”
When I was in my twenties and living in New York, the poet who came to mean that for me and a lot of the other younger writers and editors I knew was one named Frederick Seidel, a poet who had come, like another we’d heard about, from St. Louis via Harvard, and from there, via everywhere.
He wasn’t ours, wasn’t a peer, I mean, not a Rimbaud or a Plath suddenly stalking among us, using the cover of brashness to say things we’d never allowed ourselves to say, but rather a man then entering his late sixties, whose work had been known and respected and at times viciously attacked for decades, but which seemed to be entering a phase of new intensity. Or possibly we were just hearing about it for the first time.
At moments he could seem like a coterie poet—as if the people you knew who’d read him, were the only people who’d read him—but at others you’d get the feeling that no matter where you went, no matter where in the world, there’d be someone who’d give you the look, when you brought up his name, the look that said they’d been there, had undergone the exquisite and occasionally searing experience of reading Seidel’s poems.
It’s easy for me to say exactly what struck me about those poems the first time I encountered them. I was someone who had attended a lot of poetry readings in the 1990s, on college campuses and in bookstores—I worked as a lackey at a writer’s conference for a few years, where serious poets would blow through, and I even convinced myself for a while that I could write poems—which is only to say that the sound of American poetry, the ground note of it, was very clear in my head when I moved to the city. And it was impossible to deny—maybe you could deny it to others, but not to yourself—that there was something missing, something that might just be essential to the whole business. The sealed-in nature of the poetry world had taken a certain kind of risk out of things, a certain kind of danger, and as a result, a certain kind of consequence. Not to say that there weren’t excellent poets working, but when they went up to the podiums and cracked open copies of their own books, there was often an uncomfortable sense that it was all taking place between giant, invisible quotation marks, and the very theme of too many poems seemed to be: the hope of having something to say. Of sounding like what great poetry might sound like, would sound like.
But these poems, these Seidel poems, were nothing like that. Indeed they seemed to come from outside that entire sphere of concern. They were not worried about having something to say. They knew they had plenty to say, that there was always plenty to say—about love, sex, politics, murder, beauty, money, death, and motorcycles—it was whether a person could say it. To do that took both work—the work of perfecting a style—and courage, the courage of writing what seemed most true. Not what is true, mind you—we don’t get to know “what is true”—but what seems most true, which is a harder task, because it can be done, and therefore failed at, and because it hurts. This poet was asserting what felt like an ancient right, a right to sing out of the deepest self—to write painfully ugly things, and to write painfully beautiful things, but not to write a single thing that he didn’t mean, that didn’t scare him. Lou Reed sang, about Andy Warhol, “I scared myself with music, you scared yourself with paint.” Seidel scared himself with poetry, and us too. How had he done it? How had he dared? That’s a question for his biographers. All I know is that once you’d heard his voice, there was no turning around from it, no tricking yourself into thinking you hadn’t heard it. The voice was sardonic, and it could be satanic, and it was sacred.
Sometimes the writers you love in your twenties turn out to be writers you can love only in your twenties, and I do remember wondering, back then, what we would think of Seidel’s work in ten years, or in twenty years. He settled the question by somehow, implausibly, getting better. He had warned us that he would, I suppose. Hadn’t this writer told us, years ago, that he takes for his motto, “I rot before I ripen”? He ripened. In 2006, he wrote Ooga-Booga. He wrote “The Death of the Shah,” the first undeniable, capital-G Great American Poem of the twenty-first century. And he has not slowed down. Incredibly, when we started talking about which poems to include in tonight’s short reading, we found ourselves leaning toward new material. But wound up choosing something a little older, something relatively recent, and something brand new, from just a few months ago.
July 4th fireworks exhale over the Hudson sadly.
It is beautiful that they have to disappear.
It’s like the time you said I love you madly.
That was an hour ago. It’s been a fervent year.
I don’t really love fireworks, not really, the flavorful floating shroud
In the nighttime sky above the river and the crowd.
This time, because of the distance upriver perhaps, they’re not loud,
Even the colors aren’t, the patterns getting pregnant and popping.
They get bigger and louder when they start stopping.
They try to rally
At the finale.
It’s the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery—
Which is why the fireworks happen on this side of the island this year.
Shad are back, and we celebrate the Hudson’s Clean Water Act recovery.
What a joy to eat the unborn. We’re monsters, I fear. What monsters we’re.
We’ll binge on shad roe next spring in the delicious few minutes it’s here.
2. FREDERICK SEIDEL
I live a life of laziness and luxury,
Like a hare without a bone who sleeps in a pâté.
I met a fellow who was so depressed
He never got dressed and never got undressed.
He lived a life of laziness and luxury.
He hid his life away in poetry,
Like a hare still running from a gun in a pâté.
He didn’t talk much about himself because there wasn’t much to say.
He found it was impossible to look or not to.
It will literally blind him but he’s got to.
Her caterpillar with a groove
Waits for love
Between her legs. The crease
Is dripping grease.
He’s blind—now he really is.
Can’t you help him, gods!
Her light is white
Or the Parthenon under the sun
Is the other one.
There are other examples but
A perfect example in his poetry is the what
Will save you factor.
The Jaws of Life cut the life crushed in the compactor
My life is a snout
Snuffling toward the truffle, life. Anyway!
It is a life of luxury. Don’t put me out of my misery.
I am seeking more Jerusalem, not less.
And in the outtakes, after they pull my fingernails out, I confess:
I do love
The sky above.
3. THE NIGHT SKY
At night, when she is fast asleep,
The comet, which appears not to move at all,
Crosses the sky above her bed,
But stays there looking down.
She rises from her sleeping body.
Her body stays behind asleep.
She climbs the lowered ladder.
She enters through the opened hatch.
Inside is everyone.
Everyone is there.
Someone smiling is made of silk.
Someone else was made with milk.
Her mother still alive.
Her brothers and sisters and father
And aunts and uncles and grandparents
And husband never died.
Hold the glass with both hands,
My darling, that way you won’t spill.
On her little dress, her cloth yellow star
Comet travels through space.